Learning To Dance In Survival Mode – Part Two – Recognition and Roots

So, when you know that you are in survival mode – what the hell do you do now?

If you are just joining in on the journey, check out the backstory post here.

In the backstory, I shared how I ended up in survival mode, not once, but twice. I hope that some of the patterns and stories in there will help others understand what it means to be in survival mode and to help us recognize when we are in it.  The costs to our mental health are common, but often go unrecognized for long periods of time.

It’s all well-and-good to recognize that we are in survival mode, and as significant as that step is – there is a lot of work to be done to get back to a feeling of wellness. First though, take a moment to applaud yourself or your loved one for having taken the time required to realize that they are here.

Knowing is half the battle they say. Many people never make it to this point. So pour a glass of water, brew your favourite tea – and appreciate that you’ve taken the first, and most, necessary step.

Lets set some expectations.


From my experience, you’ll spend as much time getting back up out of survival mode, as you have spent being knocked down into it. There is a time scale at play here. For example, if you’ve been struggling for the last year, plan for six months to a year to feel like you are back on your feet and thriving. It’s not by any means that it isn’t possible that you’ll get back up quicker, but more often than not, it takes a good deal of time.

If you are some unicorn-like figure that has caught this modality one month in – then yay! – You’re a unicorn, and you’ll have a shorter trip back out. It’s a rarity, so you should unquestionably take a moment to celebrate.

Regaining a sense of well being takes time.

You’ve developed habits along the way that are no longer going to serve you. You are going to have to reset your frame of mind. No matter what anyone tells you – this is not going to happen overnight. It takes patience, practice, and gentleness.

If you can accept that it will take time at the beginning of the journey, your likelihood of success, in the end, is going to go up dramatically. The longer you’ve been working on cementing a habit, the longer it is going to take to overwrite what is there.

Now, this isn’t to say, if there is something that you’ve been doing for 25+ years that it will take you another quarter century to overcome it. I’d wager you are still looking at around a year to have your new habits and modes built with strong foundations.

Ok – enough with the downer realism, yeah?

You’ll need to acknowledge how imperfect the journey is. Your mental health will thank you.

Ok, I fibbed a little. We are not entirely done setting expectations here. Look, life isn’t all sunshine and roses…but you know that already.

It’s been a long-held frustration for me that articles, people, and resources will hit on a few things that you can do to improve your mental health, to get out of survival mode – but they completely gloss over the fact that it is going to take ongoing work. You won’t read one listicle and cease to suffer. Shame on them for suggesting that it works that way. 

You are not going to read this and then magically feel better. I’m tired of people and articles and self-helpery perpetuating this bullshit notion that there are magic cures.

I’m sorry folks, there isn’t. Things can definitely get better – and if you work on it, they will. They key though….you have to work on it. 

Things can get better.

You will have good days and bad days. Good hours and bad hours. This is completely OK. One should expect it isn’t going to be a straight line out – it wasn’t a straight line into it. If you look at the bad days with the right perspective, they’ll even make the good days that much better! The contrast is a large part of what makes the journey meaningful.

My intention is just to help you feel equipped to start– for now. To understand, realistically, what the journey ahead is going to look like.  How does the saying go…”If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.”

Recognize, reset, reframe.


If you spent a month combing the internet for the path out of survival mode, you’d see a million variations of the same few concepts. (I’ve looked). Since my first journey over a decade ago, I’ve been amassing information, tools, books, and first-hand hand experience using every one of them.

It’s the details around the tools you would use that change from one approach to the other – but the core concepts stay the same. They also have a logical order, one building off the other.

1. Recognize.

Recognizing that both my positive & negative emotions may be dangerous if they are not controlled and guided to desirable ends, I will submit all my desires, aims and purposes to my faculties of reason, and I will be guided by it in giving expression to these.

Bruce Lee – via Brain Pickings

It’s a hard step at first. Recognize means to practice and cultivate an awareness of how you are feeling. If you genuinely want to be able to change the state you are in, first, you need to become fully aware of how your state is impacting you. How the inputs in your life affect that state as well. Honing your observational skills can take some time and concentrated effort.

Take a minute – stop reading – and think about ways you could cultivate an awareness. I’ll be here when you get back.

Chances are, whatever came to your mind, those are things that are most likely to work for you. Right now, at least.

Journaling and meditation are two of my favourite tools for sharpening this skill. Yup, they are referenced a lot in material like “How to have the best day ever.” Those absurdly lofty goals I have a hard time with. Improvement doesn’t have to sound like perfection folks.  – But these claims are created with good reason, even if the positioning is taking away from their effectiveness.

Julia Cameron popularized the concept of morning pages, where you set a timer or a length target and begin writing. You let your mind flow, the only goal is to keep the pen moving. It’s a stream of consciousness writing exercise that can be quite revealing.  In my love dialogue exercise – I used a variation of it and ended up learning quite a bit about my thought processes around love and how my mind approaches it.

Meditation is a gentle means of practicing and strengthening your observational skills. For many, it’s uncomfortable at first. For most, we expect sitting there with an empty, silent mind. A quiet mind is neither the goal nor the reality. It’s about learning to step into a position that allows you to examine your thoughts openly. We become the observer. As we learn to step back from our thoughts, we begin seeing and understanding our patterns. If you want to read more about my thoughts on mindfulness, you can read about it here.

There are other options too if you are finding yourself recoiling from the idea of journaling an meditation, I’ll provide a list in the next post. But after much trial and error, these are the two that have by far worked the best for me.

2. Reset.

Reset is tricky. There is a mental hurdle we must overcome first – and I’ve observed many people fall off here. Resetting first requires an understanding that we’ve chosen our perspectives. Many folks find this offensive at first.

“I feel how I feel, I’m not choosing to be miserable.” “I don’t choose my emotions.”

Except…yeah. You are choosing. Yes, you do pick them.

I say this, with a firm understanding that each time I’ve entered survival mode, or significant depression, or extended periods of being generally miserable – that yes, when we peel back the layers – I was, in fact, choosing to be that way. I hinted at this in the first post in the series.

It sucks to hear because it also implies that there is no one to blame but ourselves. From our prerogatives, it can’t be our fault. It was all that shit that happened to us. Further, if we are responsible for being here, that also means it’s on us to get out.

But it’s not the things that happen to us, friends – it’s the meaning we assign to them. The perspective through which we choose to look at it. No, it isn’t easy (especially at first) to accept this, let alone do anything about it. But this is precisely why this work is so damned important.

When we allow ourselves to take the responsibility and power that comes with being the authors of our meanings, there is nothing more completely liberating. It’s an ongoing responsibility.

When you own your perspective, you can change it. Nothing is good or bad; it is your perspective of it that is good or bad.

You are in control of your perspective.

Here’s a thought about perspective:

Picture this familiar scenario:

You are driving down the highway, and the driver next to you swerves into your lane nearly causing an accident. You honk, yell, and become angry.

Now, often when we react this way, there is some combination of assumptions happening. “That asshole isn’t paying attention.” “Look at what they did to me.” “Is this person drunk? I can’t believe they are putting other people at risk like this.” “That prick is going to hurt someone, just cutting me off on the highway like they own the goddam road.”

You remain angry for a while, perhaps tailgating them, and likely fuming about this moment for the rest of your journey. Red-faced and blood pressure has risen, white-knuckled fists of rage gripping the steering wheel until you arrive at your destination.

Not a fun trip.

Now picture this:

A couple of months later, you are driving down the highway after a long night of sitting at the hospital with a loved one in critical care. You haven’t slept, and you are nauseous with worry. Your phone rings and with a glance you see it’s the hospital calling, but in your sleepy state you drop the phone under your feet. As you reach for it, your car swerves. You don’t notice this, as you are consumed with the concern about the call might. Is your loved one ok? Off in the distance, you hear something like a honking horn, but barely take note while your mind races with all the horrid possible meanings of the phone call, and frantically trying to get your phone off the floor.

It’s understandable. Sure, maybe someone else should have drove, but that just isn’t always an option, is it?

The story looks different from the perspective of the second driver, yes?

So my point is twofold here.

In situation 1 we made snap judgements and assigned meanings in the blink of an eye. The swerving car was the input, that part cannot be changed. The assumptions and meanings we chose after the input though, have a very obvious effect on the moments that follow. We assumed the driver was doing this with some degree of intentionality or neglect, we placed a tone of arrogance. We felt slighted by their disregard for us. We assumed the worst of them. We became angry.

What if instead of these assumptions, we assumed the driver that cut us off was living situation 2?

What if we took a moment to think about what that situation must be like?

Would we feel angry?  Would it ruin our day? Or would we feel concern, perhaps gentle forgiveness? Would we instead hope the best for them in their situation? Would we let it go faster if we thought – maybe this person needs support, rather than anger?

The meanings we assign to the things that happen are powerful.

The impact of these meanings ripple out into our day in ways we don’t wholly realize at that moment. The meanings that we assign to the input from the driver do in fact have a significant impact on how we proceed. The thing is, we can always choose what the meaning is. We don’t have to know the actual details; we are filling them in any way. You can though, practice selecting the meaning.

You can also, at any time find yourself on either side of this story. Drive long enough, and you will make a foolish mistake. People will cut you off. Leading with acceptance is the right action.

structure of experience - choosing reactions to inputs meaning emotion response
The lightbulb is where we get to have an impact.

It’s not about choosing the emotion – it’s about selecting the meaning that produces the emotion that is most beneficial to you. Changing emotions is borderline impossible, a brute force attack on the mind that most of us are not equipped to fight.

This is where so much advice in this vein goes wrong. It’s those moments before the emotion arises that you have incredible power.

To capture and impact that split second before the emotion comes up – you have to have cultivated the awareness of your thoughts. See how mindfulness is a powerful tool now? By practicing being the observer of the thought, rather than being the thought, we have handed ourselves a fantastic capability.

It’s a shortcut through the loop of experience. A way to put more control in our hands. To stand up and take action.

And it’s not about changing from “negative to positive” – let’s just start with useful and not useful. 

3. Reframe.

This is where the real heavy lifting comes in. The ongoing work. Don’t let anyone tell you any different. Just because it’s tricky though, doesn’t mean you can’t do it, or it isn’t worth it.

You my stubborn brat, are more than capable!

After you have cultivated the ability to recognize thought patterns and found your reset opportunities, the reframe work comes in to play. This is a muscle that is widely and massively under-developed in most people.

But, it is beautiful in its simplicity. 
You get to choose your perspective right now – so which one best serves you? Is it perhaps the more favourable story of the driver cutting you off, instead of the one that leads to anger?

Is it perhaps, that somehow, the pain you are experiencing is a gift, and you have the opportunity to extract some beautiful experiences and understanding from what you are going through?

You have permission to try things on. Experiment. There are no wrong answers. You get to decide the meaning you are placing on things, and through this, how events in your life will impact you. Often, it is helpful to work on this muscle outside of the heated moment. This is where things like affirmations can be helpful – and no, they don’t have to be absurd or fluffy. It’s just setting your intentions.

You get to practice. You get to play.

You get to learn to dance with the pain and frustrations that we all experience – 
And you get to learn to create art out of it.

Don’t worry if it doesn’t seem easy right now. It probably won’t be. Just take some time to enjoy the possibility. 

Stay tuned for part 3, where we’ll explore some of this in more depth, and start creating an action plan!

Let me know if this was helpful and how you are going to apply in the comments below 💙

[convertkit form=5230606]

Learning To Dance In Survival Mode – Part One

Part one of three in a series on mental illness, the effects it has, and healing. Consider this the backstory.

To say that this has been difficult to write would be an understatement of proportions so epic, I can’t find a word or cliche to cover it. I have started and scrapped 31 drafts at this point. From pen and paper to seven different digital writing tools, even finding the right space even to string the words together has been a battle fit for a Tolkien novel.

But somewhere in the war of putting one word after another is a direct relationship to what you need to hear. Sometimes shit is hard. Sometimes we spin our wheels and feel completely overwhelmed. This needs to be ok. And we need to talk about it.

We have to allow ourselves to dance with this mess, to confront it, to accept it, and to see it for all that it is. We must get comfortable staring it down. The way out is always going to be through. There is no real avoidance, ultimately only delay tactics.

So I’m walking the talk, and sharing the messy details of my adventure into, and the journey out of this fight-and-flight mode of being. It has not been a perfect road, and this is why it needs to be shared.

For those unaware of what survival mode is, let us take a moment to examine it.

We all experience stress and struggle at different points in our lives, and many of us will also live through some level of depression. Survival mode is an amplification of the side effects of these things. Generally triggered by prolonged periods of stress and often accompanying depression, it is a mode where our instinctive minds turn everything into, well, a battle for survival.

Think of the sci-fi fantasy where the ship has taken on damage, and it diverts power to life support systems, which usually results in a lack of power for the engines or shields. The resources become focused on one system, to the detriment of others. Everything becomes an attack on your ability to maintain your life support systems.

The details and mileage will vary depending on the individual, but some classic characteristics are:

• Feelings of helplessness and powerlessness
• Everything feels like a crisis, or highly urgent
• Inability to put attention on the future, there is only getting through the day
• Pushing others away, due to a lack of energy to deal with them
• Isolation from people and things you used to enjoy
• Disturbed sleep and complete inattention to diet

• Stuck in a reactive mode (lacking proactivity)
• Repetitive thoughts of “why is this happening to me.”

There are a few subtle differences and some considerable similarities here to depression. Think of depression as survival mode’s apathetic cousin. They often join the party together, but survival mode turns the party into an anxiety-addled shit show. Though the effects are not always neon-sign obvious, the observant will see them happening in themselves or the folks around them.

Survival mode by definition inhibits our ability to thrive.

Not my first rodeo.

Feelings of shame and the desire to run when in survival mode is normal.

My familiarity with the reductive experience of survival mode is a point of shame for me. Pity that, as I ventured down into it again, I didn’t recognize that I was fighting for emotional survival sooner. Shame that I didn’t implement the things I’ve learned as well as I could have.

Shame that it keeps happening.

But also, a point of pride. Once I heard the call of experiences past, the ability to stand more resolute in who I needed to be, came naturally.

See, I’ve run the gauntlet of trauma before, and have journeyed up and out into healthy and fully expressed living previously.
Seventeen years ago a series of events kicked-off that would lead to a forfeiture of health, happiness, well-being, and empowerment. This particular chunk of the journey is not the point I want to make, but knowing about the perspective it brought is vital to the second act of this tale.

So in rapid-fire bullet form:

  • About halfway through my college program, I find out that the college fund I worked to contribute to was stolen from me. There is no more money for tuition. My step-father eventually pleads guilty to theft, to the tune of about $10,000. He leaves our family.
  • I end up marrying the man I’m with at the time, who I’ll eventually find out had been having an affair longer than our actual marriage.
  • Just before we marry, I have an ectopic pregnancy. I enter the hospital with the pain, not knowing I am pregnant. That the pregnancy is growing in my fallopian tube is missed on the first ultrasound is not seen, leading to a month-long stay in the hospital. I am pulled off of pain medication and labelled a drug seeker, and being switched through four different doctors while they try to figure out what is wrong with me. I am treated abusively and callously while I’m terrified and in incredible, focused pain. Eventually, I have emergency surgery to remove the pregnancy. (I’ll eventually have a second ectopic and am told I have little likely-hood of being able to carry a pregnancy to term in the future.)
  • I enter a significant and prolonged depression, as I’ve developed multiple health problems. Getting care and diagnosis proves to be a battle, and we believe it is due to the drug-seeker label form the pregnancy. The exhaustion from trying to get help leads to a suicide plan. The gift of self-awareness, a good friend, and a supportive mother result in checking myself into the hospital.
  • I am diagnosed with Fibromyalgia, a chronic widespread pain disorder that is very poorly understood.

I can’t tell you precisely when survival mode kicked in during all that, just that it unquestionably did. My world reduced to making it through the hour. I couldn’t see beyond the moment or the things that I was reacting to. I felt hopeless and confined beyond explanation. Happiness was something I was sure I would never experience again.

Over a couple of years, and with some fortunate help, I was able to shift into a positive, learning and growing mode. I began to search for possibility and embrace it. Instead of letting my conditions put me on disability, I went to work in a restaurant kitchen.
I learned that it is not that the things that happen to us, but what we do with them that matters. We get to choose. I turned the things that had happened to me into a source of strength.

No, I would not be defined by this.

The second wave is shattering my worldview, allowing me to rebuild it.

When you are looking after your mental health it becomes clear that the only way out is through.

While I had gained the ability to stand tall with my struggles, it would take another wave of “I can’t believe this is happening” for me to learn the faults in the ways I learned to cope.

During the last three years, I have been watching my twelve-years-younger brother enter his own dance with mental illness. A dark and twisted tango. It started out harmless enough, many of the standard pieces of coming-of-age that we all expect. Drinking, drugs, poor decision making. Growing distance from his longtime friends, and from his family.

But the decent would be faster and more profound than any of us could have imagined. In what would typically be considered three short years, but in reality were the longest of my life, we watched helplessly as his life blew apart at the seams. He’s now in prison.

I’m fighting the urge to lay the entire story bare here and now, but this format doesn’t lend well to the detail that is required to do it justice – but that story is coming soon. For now, let your imagination fill in the gaps – it’s probably not far off. You can check out a short non-fiction story I wrote here in the middle of this journey.

Over the course of his battle, my mother and I would wrestle and come face-to-face with powerlessness and a life-consuming worry. It goes far beyond a squandering of potential or worrying that someone is drinking too much. The point where we were forced to see how bad it had honestly gotten came about two years ago.
It was the first severe mental break we witnessed. There may have been others, though on a smaller scale – the warning signs were everywhere. It needs to be said – there is precious little you can do to stop a spiral for someone else. A lesson we were not prepared to learn.

He and his partner had a young child, just a couple months old – when something snapped in him. This was well into the pattern of drug abuse, lying, and all that comes with it. There was some sort of fight that triggered it. He chugged a half dozen beer and went to the house his partner and child were at, in the middle of a psychotic break. He was trying to fight his way into the house, where there was also a group of people, to say goodbye to the mother and child. Our mother was there, witnessing part of this unfold. Some people at the house fought him off, and he left to find a knife. He frantically sliced up his arms and wrists, and through a stroke an incredible fortune, the blade he was able to find wouldn’t be able to accomplish the task he wanted. With bloodied arms, he would return to the house. My mother would call the police, trying desperately to find a way to stop this scene from happening. He’s screaming at everyone and everything. He’d leave the house, and mom would follow along behind him, still on the phone with dispatch.

She would end up watching him get taken down by three officers while screaming for them to “just kill me, I want to die.” They’ll hold him for a couple of hours and take him to the hospital.

I end up there next to him in the hospital, waiting for him to be seen. He refuses to talk to our mother, due to her having just called the cops on him. I watch him cycle through completely mania, terrifying anger, and utter despair every two to three minutes for hours. After a 20 minute conversation with a psychologist, and bandaging his arms, they release him that night. I even plead with the doctor in front of my brother to keep him there, at least for a couple of days – but he refuses.

So he comes to stay with me. That night we talk a bit, but he’s exhausted. The next evening, he sneaks away from the house. For a couple of hours, I’m panic ridden that he’s tried to return to the mother and child. I mean, he hasn’t gotten any help, and has had one dose of medication – how can this be even remotely stabilized?

In the end, it was true, he had gone to see her. She lied about him having been there until she was sure that I knew. They both had been lying to us for so long it came as no shock that it was happening still, but this time it became terrifying.

In what must have been incredible clairvoyance, just a week earlier there had been a series of small events that made us confident that things were going to get worse. The safety of the child was and had been obviously at risk. My mother and I spent a nine-hour day going to every social office available. To mental health and through their departments. We spoke to the police. We called every number on the hand out cards, trying everything we could to get them, and the child help. Desperate to avoid the action that ultimately had to be made. We ended up calling social services and reporting the stories that each of them were telling us. We discussed with the caseworker that they both had been lying to us, and we genuinely had no way of know what the truth was. We filed the report with child protective services.

It was only days later that the whole terrifying scene happened. But it wouldn’t be the bottom. Far from it. It wouldn’t be the end of the lies. Far from it. But this would be the beginning of my shift into survival mode again.

I felt trapped.

You don’t have to be trapped in survival mode, you can start taking little steps to get out.

The effects of his battle had ripple effects that people just don’t talk about. That house I mentioned him fighting his way into? That was a meeting place for my social circle. I play in a band, and they regularly have bands play there. His partner? – The sister of a once close friend. This epically messed up scene was happening in the middle of my social life. The shame, powerlessness, the frustration, and isolation, the illness that affected him – made me feel incredibly disconnected from the social safety net we should have in times like these.

I had just started a new career and needed to focus on getting up to speed and contributing. But things just refused to happen outside of 9-5. Phone calls and emergencies would happen, literally pulling me away from work.
It strained my relationship with my partner. Every time things seemed to calm down for a while, some other bizarrely dramatic thing would happen. It twisted the relationship with my mother. She was angry, and worst of all powerless to help her baby boy. I guarantee you, no mother deals well with this.

There was no corner of my life outside of reach. This is where the contraction began. I felt suffocated by circumstances I couldn’t control, and the occasional, “why is this happening to me” became consuming. I started shutting down and lashing out. I was angry. I couldn’t write anymore. Writing would mean confronting this head on and working through it, but all I seemed to have the strength to do was spin my wheels in self-pity and utter confusion that things had gotten this bad. My brother and I had been very close his whole life. I began blaming myself for how bad things had gotten for him. Let me tell you – that shit is dangerous.

There were good weeks and bad weeks. I was able to bring back some of the tools I had learned from my first dance with this devil. In the periods where I was able to get the hell out of my own head, I’d set up a morning routine. A few minutes of meditation, a few minutes of yoga and stretching. A gratitude practice. When I’d keep this up, I was doing quite well. Rather than being the thriving mechanisms, they ought to be though, they were survival mechanisms.

Things with my brother continued to worsen but in a quieter way. Quite literally because he had stopped speaking to us, they both had. With the quiet, I delved deeper into the tools, doing the work and trying to get back on my feet. I was still in pain, consumed by worry – replaying each event over and over in my head, and feeling isolated, part by choice, and part by consequence of that social overlap. I call in multiple safety checks on him and gain a comfort calling police dispatch no one should really have. Every homeless person on the street and the vast majority of television become trigger points for me.

The spiral wasn’t over, but the way out would become clear.

Then I got a message from an old friend I rarely speak with. She’d heard that my brother had been arrested. Let me assure you, to say my stomach dropped is the understatement of the damned century. Remember I said he’s in prison?
#Metoo is at a fever pitch, and my brother has been charged with assault and sexual assault. At the time of the attack, his arm was in a cast. His cast is to try and save the tendons he had severed in his wrist, and no, not from the incident I detailed above. All aspects and consequences of what I’ve explained, worsened. My dance with survival mode intensified.

Somewhere in here too, I have acute and severe pelvic pain that has developed, I’m regularly seeing doctors trying to figure out what is going on – I’m incredibly low on energy to cope. I’ll make yet another trip through physiotherapy to bring the pain levels down to something manageable. As I’m writing this, I’m on the list to get a hysterectomy. Three to four months from now, I’ll officially be sterile.

But last fall, just after a tonsillectomy, and smack in the middle of the 19 months between the charges and my brother being taken into custody, when I’m just utterly unable to speak, a friend grabs me by the shoulder while staring me intently in the eyes and asks, “what is the gift this experience is giving you?”

Without hesitation, my first thought is something along the lines of, you have to be f$%#@ing kidding me. I’m relatively sure I reacted with resistance. But I knew it to be entirely correct. There was a gift, there was something to be gained, I would be better for the experience – if only I’d look up. If I’d just get the hell out of my own head, and stop pitying myself.

It was a siren call to everything I’ve learned. I’ve been here before, I know how to get out. I know how to thrive, to stand tall – not in spite of everything I’ve experienced, but because of it. The gifts of it all abound. No, they are not all pretty and perfect, and the road out is far from a straight line.

I’m here to tell you that the journey is beautiful because it is imperfect.

Getting your mental health back on track is a two-way street.

It is a truth I know in the core of my being. The key is simple, so simple that it seems impossibly complicated.

It’s a choice. We choose our perspectives, whether actively or passively. We decide whether we are happy. We determine whether we grow. We choose the impact things will have on us. When we’ve entered into something like depression or survival mode, to hear these things sound like the most offensive words. Because in a sense, they are.

When we think of the inspiring stories from terminal cancer patients or quadriplegics thriving in their lives and circumstances, it imbues us with a hope that we too may have the strength to hold their perspectives – but we gloss over the part where all they are doing is making a choice. They are choosing to move beyond the constriction that comes with the struggle they face, they choose to stand tall, to be “brave,” to be everything that they are – often with a beautiful, reckless abandon. Life has provided them with enough resistance, that the choice of happiness and love seems the most obvious. It has put things into perspective for them.

So yes. It is a choice.

When I mentioned using tools like meditation, yoga and gratitude journalling – the word tool was very deliberate. They are not what cures the ailments, they are means to access a different way of thinking. They are subtle means to make small choices, leading to the big one that seems overwhelming.

It is a choice that has to be made many, if not hundreds, of times a day. Every moment that arises, every sequence of nows. That’s all anything really is. Now, and now, and now. It’s not the stories we tell ourselves about what has happened, or what might happen. It’s right now.

It’s what you choose to do with now.

It doesn’t have to be perfect. You just have to start trying. Keep trying.

Be strong. Stay tuned. The best is yet to come.

Edit:  Part 2 is now available, you can read it here!

Mindfulness Isn’t Bullsh!t – It’s Worth It

Your approach to mindfulness might be.

Most of us will not ascend to new plains of consciousness via mindfulness. We will not become superior, enlightened monks after one sitting meditation. Perhaps movies and television are to blame but mention it to many of my cynical and skeptical friends (I’m raising my hand here too), and you can nearly hear the involuntary eye-roll when the subject comes up. Not every form of meditation requires extended sits with fingers held in funny shapes while chanting out ohm (which is called a mantra and comes from the transcendental practice by the way).

Listen, all my beautiful negative nellies, if you don’t think it will work, it won’t. If you think it’s all new-age hype – it will be. That’s part of the point here. We are creating our realities one thought at a time, and become convinced our thoughts are the only reality when we don’t stop and observe.

There are dozens of forms of meditation, some more studied than others.

There are two primary types though – focused attention meditation and open monitoring meditation. Focused attention meditation is just like it sounds, you focus your attention on a sound or a sensation, like the breath. As time passes, your attention invariably wanders, and you gently bring it back to the sensation of the breath. Open monitoring meditation is more a practice of cultivating awareness of your thinking. Holding all the non-judgment one can muster, you step back into the role of observer of your thoughts, rather than actively experiencing this. Both can be done in guided and non-guided formats.

We tend to overcomplicate it though, so here’s a lovely example of focused attention, using the breath.

Meditation in 3 steps
Credit: MindfulAmbition

Each has its purpose and benefits, and often are even better when practiced together. There are some great apps to use on your phone to help guide you, especially helpful when getting started. Personally, I use Calm; I find Tamara Levitt’s voice to be particularly soothing. There’s also Headspace and a whole host of others out there; there’s bound to be something just right for you if you want to try some guided meditations.  (I’m not affiliated with either, to be clear I just happen to find them helpful).

Historically some of the research has shown varied results, but since they began evaluating and conducting MRI studies, the methods used in the studies and the results show something much more consistent.

“… meditation practice has been found to promote well-being by fostering cognitive and emotional functioning []. Indeed, the positive effects achieved during the training sessions were generalized to everyday life, enhancing both cognitive (i.e., memory, attention, problem-solving, and executive functions) and emotional (i.e., prosocial behavior) functioning in expert meditators. ” – The Meditative Mind: A Comprehensive Meta-Analysis of MRI Studies

Meditation is only part of the equation.

It’s not a one-and-done effort.

Before I run too far down the road of the different types and all the joys of semantical definitions, it seems necessary to point out – mindfulness doesn’t require meditation. These terms are used interchangeably, and well, I object. You don’t need to have a meditation practice to practice mindfulness. It certainly helps, and assists in developing the muscle faster. Meditation will make mindfulness come more naturally.  But sweet baby Jesus, you can be mindful without meditation.

Arguably, you can cultivate a bit of mindfulness by having a particularly inquisitive friend around. You know, the ones who are quick to ask, “why do you think that,” “why do you seem tense right now, “what does it mean that you are feeling that way.”  those beautiful souls that haven’t lost the child-like wonder of why’s and what if’s. Probably not the best approach, but outsourcing, to begin with, is still better than nothing.

Mindfulness-in-hindsight is even a fantastic place to start (think I could coin the term?). Taking a few minutes at the end of the day to reflect and check in with what you were feeling and why you reacted in the ways that you did, can still have a significant impact. Here likely lies the power of journaling.  It’s a means of being mindful of your day, taking stock of your actions and mere reflection.

Or there are more immediate approaches. Like when you catch yourself berating your actions, then taking a step back and trying to observe your thoughts, rather than getting swept away by them. For those who experience chronic pain, the same exercise has been shown to have a meaningful effect.

The benefits of meditation are real.

I love my physiotherapist. She pushes me in that kind of gentle way that makes you want to put in the extra effort to make her proud. She also will do everything she can to find ways to empower you to heal. Directly at the intersection of cognitive behavioral therapy and meditation and mindfulness, she offers up exercises to me to compliment the physical movements.  Always, this comes with a reminder that the techniques are science-based, and there is sufficient proof to indicate not only that it works but is worth the effort. She’s quick to remind my eyes they don’t need to roll; I simply need to try with an open mind.

Damn if she isn’t right.
Mindfulness and meditation are how I manage to cope with multiple chronic pain conditions without medication.

But in our instant gratification world, we want the fix, and we want it now, ideally for free and with as little effort as possible. The first time we run through a mindfulness exercise or meditation practice, we seem to expect that there will be profound benefits right away. Generally, we are met with something that feels foreign, perhaps a bit uncomfortable — and rapidly conclude there is no benefit to the exercise. This thinking is completely parallel to the idea that if we make one trip to the gym and make one awkward attempt to lift weights that we’ll leave the building looking like Schwarzenegger. Patently absurd, right?

It’s almost as if we think our mental and physical well being isn’t worthy of putting in a little work.

Since mind-wandering is typically associated with being less happy, ruminating, and worrying about the past and future, it’s the goal for many people to dial it down. Several studies have shown that meditation, through its quieting effect on the DMN, appears to do just this. And even when the mind does start to wander, because of the new connections that form, meditators are better at snapping back out of it. – 7 Ways Meditation Can Actually Change The Brain

The thing is, over time the effects are just as observable as Arnold’s dedication to his workouts, both inward and outward. It’s a slow and gradual improvement. Conventional wisdom says that it takes 12 weeks to see results from a workout routine.  Well, I have some awesome news for you…

Studies show that in 8 weeks, there is a measurable impact from meditation.

There’s even evidence suggesting that we can produce changes in our grey matter.

MRI scans show that after an eight-week course of mindfulness practice, the brain’s “fight or flight” center, the amygdala, appears to shrink. This primal region of the brain, associated with fear and emotion, is involved in the initiation of the body’s response to stress.

“I’m definitely not saying mindfulness can cure HIV or prevent heart disease. But we do see a reduction in biomarkers of stress and inflammation. Markers like C-reactive proteins, interleukin 6 and cortisol – all of which are associated with disease.”

Scientific American

I mentioned in another post that mindfulness and meditation are one of the tools I keep handy for coping with pain. It has seriously made a massive impact on my ability to cope, and hell, my ability to smile on a daily basis. Really, the results are noticeable internally and externally. It only took about two weeks of a consistent 15 minutes in the morning practice before co-workers and friends began commenting things like, “you’re so much more alive.” Seems silly, and it’s definitely anecdotal evidence.

You have nothing to lose by trying.

Most frustrating of all is the way we deny ourselves the opportunity to experience the benefits. Caught up in stereotypes, or conviction that it’s all bullshit, we brush off the potential behind something that is:

  1. Free.
  2. Portable.
  3. Accessible.
  4. Simple to practice.

I’ve mentioned it to a few friends who commented on the noticeable differences in me and asking for help themselves, suggesting maybe they try checking it out. The suggestions are met with bobbing heads and shrugs and, “yeah….maybe’s.” I love them all the same, but darn if I didn’t wish they’d just try it. Tip of the hat to the friend who did respond with a, “yeah I tried it once, but it didn’t work for me.”

It’s the expectations with which we enter into the attempt, you see. If more of the conversation around all of this focused more on the practical aspects like, it takes a couple of days (minimum), it’s uncomfortable at first – perhaps people would be giving it a better go. Really, what is there to lose in having a bit more presence in your life, a bit more perspective, a bit more peace, a dash more happiness… just a little more calm readily accessible for you?  We could stop setting ourselves up for failure with the expectation of finding Nirvana in the first 20 minutes, and perhaps get a little farther.

“I’m too busy.” “I don’t have time.”

Yeah, I tell myself that too, then spend 20 minutes mindlessly swiping along my Facebook feed. I’ll call bullshit on both of us.

What if you could gain even a little empowerment through mindfulness practice?

One of the most notable side effects of six plus months of (admittedly inconsistent) practice has been feeling more in control of myself. Not in any sort of forced way, more fluid and natural. It’s a very empowering feeling to be observing yourself thinking and reacting in the present moment, bringing more of a state of flow to all the little actions and interactions in the day. To be in a state of acceptance more and more. What a pleasant thing to experience!

Worth a shot, no? If you are of the skeptical mind, I highly recommend checking out some of the studies linked to in this article. If only to set yourself up for better success and understanding when you do decide to bring a little more mindfulness to your day.

Image result for mindfulness isn't bullshit

I confess it’s been a couple of weeks since I sat for a morning meditation session – and I’ve been noticeably crankier and more susceptible to the inputs of the day. A 1300 word call-to-action to return to what I know works. Best heed the call.

Why don’t you get outta here and give it a try too? I’ll see you in a week, feeling a little more observant and at peace.

Love as a Dialogue – An Exercise to Discover

Exploring love as an internal dialogue.

Have you ever sat and observed the things we tell ourselves about love, being loved, and giving love? What would the cadence of the conversation be for you? What is the tone of the story you tell yourself?

These are the results of a morning page exercise I did off of a love prompt. One part inspired by this fantastic post by Zen Habits on the stories we tell ourselves, another part inspired by a morning exercise by Julia Cameron.

Now, telling ourselves stories is natural — we all do it, all the time. There’s nothing wrong with it. But if we’re not aware of the stories we tell ourselves, we can’t understand how they shape our happiness, relationships, moods, and more.

Leo Babauta

What is the story I tell myself about love? I’m not still entirely sure, but there is an awareness now that I didn’t have before. I set a timer for 10 minutes, opened up my notebook and wrote as fast as I could. Here’s what came out in all its rawness (with only spelling mistakes edited).

I mean, I’m just learning to love myself. You don’t have to love me.

You don’t have to love me; I’m just as flawed as you are.
You don’t have to love me, at least not the way that I love myself.

You don’t have to love me; I don’t even love me.
You don’t have to love me, I’ve hurt people before.
You don’t have to love me; I’m pretty broken from those before you.
You don’t have to love me; I’m not a morning person.
You don’t have to love me; I’m not exactly like you are.
You don’t have to love me; I have dreams of my own.
You don’t have to love me, I think about things differently.
You don’t have to love me; I might not love you back.
You don’t have to love me; it’s easier to hate.
You don’t have to love me; I look different.
You don’t have to love me, I believe in different things.
You don’t have to love me, I’ve seen the way the story ends.
You don’t have to love me; I can do things on my own.
You don’t have to love me; I’m not needy enough to need you.
You don’t have to love me; I carry some scars.
You don’t have to love me; I’m a little broken inside.

I have to love me, it’s just me and I stuck in here.
I have to love me, just in case no one else will.
I have to love me, when I need a thrill.
I have to love me; I’m my only guaranteed company.
I have to love me; it’s better when I do.
I have to love me; I understand the best what I’ve been through.
I have to love me; it’s how I’m going to heal.
I have to love me; I know how much strength it’s taken to carry on.
I have to love me; I know what I’m worth.
I have to love me; I get me.
I have to love me; it’s where I find my strength.
I have to love me; it’s how I sleep at night.
I have to love me; I know my story too well.
I have to love me, so that I can love you.

I love you, just the way you are.
I love you; I see the way you struggle.
I love you; you carry so many burdens.
I love you, for all that you’ve been through.
I love you, even when you can’t.
I love you, because it brings me peace.
I love you, because you have a story worth telling.
I love you, and the gentle soul within.
I love you, when you think I’m not looking.
I love you, when there’s nothing else to say.
I love you, even when you hurt me.
I love you, while the anger rages on.
I love you, while you hide behind your walls.
I love you, when you are weak.
I love you, when you are strong.
I love you, for the stories that you tell.
I love you, for the stories you keep hidden.
I love you, for the fears you try to hide.
I love you, for the kindness in your eyes.
I love you, because of your flaws.
I love you, as I love me.

What was learned from the exercise?

The narrative was really fluid. At first, the sticking points and all the un-worthy thoughts flowed into the page. In this fast, free-flowing state,  it’s difficult to sit in judgment of the thoughts. There isn’t really time to observe or wonder about them; they just appear outside of the mind for a change. This is perhaps one of the main benefits of getting it out as fast as possible. When I return to examine, I can’t mutate what the thoughts originally were, they have to be taken as they really came.

After many “you don’t have to love me” statements, there was a different kind of resistance.  You don’t have to – I have to – became the prevailing thought. But why? We all know that we must love ourselves and accept who we are. We know that sometimes the act of loving ourselves feels a bit radical. Maybe it was the recent reading of Rising Strong that had the drumbeat of courage and acceptance changing the rhythm of my thoughts.

The most dangerous stories we make up are the narratives that diminish our inherent worthiness. We must reclaim the truth about our lovability, divinity, and creativity.

-Brené Brown, Rising Strong

There had been a quick moment of realizing that everything was being forfeited as I was writing “you don’t have to love me” it wasn’t released, it was more of a defeat. Sure, some was letting go of the need to be loved – but surely there is more to uncover in this conversation with the self? Why don’t you need to love me?

I have to love me because it’s the only choice worth making. I felt determined.

And then, another rapid shift to externalizing. Almost like a loving-kindness meditation, projecting the thoughts outward. When I re-read it, the dichotomy between the ideas easily projected onto others, and the wish to hold those same thoughts as truths when pointed inwards fascinates me. Both the wish to hold them for myself, and realizing that I do, in fact, hold them to be inwardly true as well.

Each time I look at the results of this one, it feels as though I come to understand a little bit more about my dialogue around love. For the last few weeks, I’ve been returning to the exercise and exploring ways to amplify the dialogue I want to have with my self, by adding some positive statements as affirmations, and as part of the tools I use to manage my pain.

Want to discover your dialogue about love? – Try it for yourself

  1. Grab something you enjoy writing with and a notebook or a few sheets of paper.
  2. Take a moment to think about love. Close your eyes and pull up all the images you can about what it means to you.
  3. Set a timer for 10 minutes.
  4. Write, as fast as you can, anything and everything that comes up. Don’t pause to judge or ask questions (the questions are for later)
  5. When the timer is done, take a few minutes to pat yourself on the back.

It’s not easy at first, examining the stories we tell ourselves. Take a moment to congratulate yourself for having even attempted.

Now explore what you see on the page. Try not to hold judgments – just observe openly and wholeheartedly. See what is really there.

What is the story you tell yourself about love?

Share the love on Pinterest!

88 Affirmations For Skeptics and Cynics

Affirmations don’t have to be fluffy.

If you are just here for the pictures (don’t worry, no one is judging) scroll on down to the bottom. I’ve put all the affirmations in their large original sizes, just click and the gallery will open them up, and you can save the ones you like.

In all of the tools that I have used throughout my life, affirmations have been one of the most useful. There is a little problem, though —  I’m a bit of a cynic and skeptic, and I have a matter-of-fact mind when it comes to my state and the world around me. There are a lot of great and fascinating resources for affirmations out there – but I find nearly all of them use language that is far too fluffy for me.  I can’t take them seriously, or convince myself that I believe the statements – and this makes them completely ineffective.

I’m a sucker for science-based tools and resources; with a little supportive truth, I’m willing to try just about anything. Meditation and mindfulness, awesome, I’m in – there’s proof out the wazu!  Homeopathy? Not my jam. Do I sometimes carry around stones and crystals? Yup – but I’m using them as anchors to thoughts and feelings I wish to amplify – not because I believe the frequency at which they vibrate affects me at a cellular level.  Ouf, now that’s cleared up, let’s dive into how to leverage positive thought 🌱

We are all using affirmations anyway.

Whether you are deliberately choosing statements to set your intentions or not – your self-talk does affect how you interpret the world around you. Maybe you have a cranky old man (you know, the one shaking his broom at the neighborhood kids from his front porch) style of voice that, criticizes your every move. Maybe you have a maniacal chipmunk voice encouraging you to dart around. Maybe.  I don’t know you.

But I do know you have an inner narrator.

Many of the narrator’s default phrases are not the most useful. The adage, “you are your own worst critic,” is entirely accurate. For the most part, left to its own devices, the narrator will use neutral-to-negative language to set up your expectations towards interactions, events and your performance. And sometimes that’s ok; channeled well it can work as great nudges to push your performance further.  But we don’t give enough credit to radical acts of self-love, and the importance of our self-talk.

So if you are a tinge jaded; if you are a dash cynical or wholeheartedly skeptical, forget a bit of what you think you know about affirmations – they aren’t strictly new-age fluff. Put on your fanciest reasoning cap, and ponder along with me here.

Affirmations as a tool in psychology.

Positive affirmations are used in many areas of psychology, mindfulness and other therapeutic practices because they are hugely useful when we approach them correctly. There have been some interesting studies done that show people who wrote self-affirming statements, or completed activities that affirmed their self-integrity were less defensive and more accepting of information that was potentially threatening. Put another way, those who took a few minutes to place some attention and intention around their worth and values, were able to withstand their values and self-worth being challenged with more grace.

Many moons ago, my pain therapist introduced me to cognitive behavioral therapy; affirmations were an integral part of re-wiring the parts of my mind that were coping with the pain. To this day, it’s still one of the most useful tools that I have. One of the exercises would look something like recognizing that I was tensing against the pain,  visualizing a stop sign, and repeating a statement like, “I am safe, I accept the pain.”  The goal was to redirect the freight train that barreled along fighting the pain signals and guide it to a more useful path.

Our thinking and self-talk are learned behaviors.

We can learn to modify our behavior. Humans are pattern recognition machines, and we are delightfully privileged to be able to alter the patterns that we are searching for. One way to think of affirmations is to set ourselves up for positive pattern recognition intentionally. Instead of starting a day convinced it’s going to turn to shit, our partner or boss are going to yell at us – and then continuing through the day looking for inputs and signals that confirm that pattern search; we could try looking for a different pattern.

Our minds are rife with cognitive distortions, but we also have incredible power over this!  I highly recommend reading about the distortions here and examining if there are any you may fall prey to. If so, read through the list again and see if you can picture how practicing some positive, present tense statements might have an impact.

There is a lot of power in a few positive thoughts. For the jaded cranky few though, I laugh trying to picture them eagerly buying into it as they chant to themselves “I embody love and light.” It’s just a bit…much.  There’s a lot of benefit to the sentiment, though! Personally, I have to reign them in a bit, to something that I feel I can say with conviction.

Our reality really is formed by our thoughts.

A few keys to get started.

  • Affirmations are most effective when used in the first person, present tense, with an authoritative spin. Think “I will recover” versus “Anyone can recover.” The nuances are important.
  • Try to avoid negative words, instead, frame everything in a positive light.
  • They work best when approached as statements of definitive truth. (sometimes this is the hardest part, as when we first begin, we are effectively trying to convince ourselves of something.)
  • If the definitive statement feels like an outright lie, don’t force it, walk it back. – “I love my body,” might simply be untrue, so maybe, “I am learning to love my body,” is the right version for now. Eventually, you’ll be able to work it until the definitive is true. There’s a good breakdown of the benefits of this approach in this post my MindValley
  • You’ll need to choose just one or two to start and repeat them often. For a few minutes in the morning, again in the afternoon, and just before you go to bed at night. There is no such thing as too often. Try different times, different places, out loud, on paper, with a smile, when you are frowning. Most importantly, speak them as soon as you become aware you are hopping on a hamster wheel of defeating self-talk.
  • Take this list as something to brainstorm with. Customizing the affirmations and making them your own will only make them better!

Don’t forget – practice makes perfect. It is better to try committing to using them for at least two weeks, this way you’ll really be able to tell how it’s working for you.  Try not to expect results right away!

Hope you enjoy!  🙏

  • Likely Tale Daily Affirmations - I can handle what comes my way.
  • Likely Tale Daily Affirmations - I am ok just as I am
  • Likely Tale Daily Affirmations - I am creating space for myself
  • Likely Tale Daily Affirmations - I am worthy of love
  • Likely Tale Daily Affirmations - I am resilient
  • Likely Tale Daily Affirmations - I am adaptable
  • Likely Tale Daily Affirmations - I trust good things are coming
  • Likely Tale Daily Affirmations - I allow myself seasons
  • Likely Tale Daily Affirmations - I foster curiosity
  • Likely Tale Daily Affirmations - I grow through challenge
  • Likely Tale Daily Affirmations - I am mindful
  • Likely Tale Daily Affirmations - I deserve my desires
  • Likely Tale Daily Affirmations - I am open to new solutions
  • Likely Tale Daily Affirmations - I live in the present
  • Likely Tale Daily Affirmations - I am moving forward
  • Likely Tale Daily Affirmations - I am comfortable alone
  • Likely Tale Daily Affirmations - I am calm
  • Likely Tale Daily Affirmations - I am making progress
  • Likely Tale Daily Affirmations - I am able
  • Likely Tale Daily Affirmations - I am wiling
  • Likely Tale Daily Affirmations - I am empowered
  • Likely Tale Daily Affirmations - I find joy in all things
  • Likely Tale Daily Affirmations - I am overflowing with joy
  • Likely Tale Daily Affirmations - I can face my fears
  • Likely Tale Daily Affirmations - I deserve my dreams
  • Likely Tale Daily Affirmations - I am full of energy
  • Likely Tale Daily Affirmations - I am strong
  • Likely Tale Daily Affirmations - I am carving my path
  • Likely Tale Daily Affirmations - I know my power
  • Likely Tale Daily Affirmations - I am a warrior
  • Likely Tale Daily Affirmations - I have power over my mind
  • Likely Tale Daily Affirmations - I am lucky
  • Likely Tale Daily Affirmations - I radiate change
  • Likely Tale Daily Affirmations - I radiate love
  • Likely Tale Daily Affirmations - I am valued
  • Likely Tale Daily Affirmations - I choose to be happy
  • Likely Tale Daily Affirmations - I am focused and persistent
  • Likely Tale Daily Affirmations - I am creating the life I desire
  • Likely Tale Daily Affirmations - I am worthy
  • Likely Tale Daily Affirmations - I am confident
  • Likely Tale Daily Affirmations - I am free of worry
  • Likely Tale Daily Affirmations - I am always improving
  • Likely Tale Daily Affirmations - I am compassionate with myself
  • Likely Tale Daily Affirmations - Everything is possible
  • Likely Tale Daily Affirmations - I am strong
  • Likely Tale Daily Affirmations - I am powerful
  • Likely Tale Daily Affirmations - I am grateful
  • Likely Tale Daily Affirmations - I am healing
  • Likely Tale Daily Affirmations - I am learning
  • Likely Tale Daily Affirmations - I am enough
  • Likely Tale Daily Affirmations - I know my strengths
  • Likely Tale Daily Affirmations - I am comfortable
  • Likely Tale Daily Affirmations - I am always learning
  • Likely Tale Daily Affirmations - I am willing to stand out
  • Likely Tale Daily Affirmations - I am ok with who I am
  • Likely Tale Daily Affirmations - I am eager
  • Likely Tale Daily Affirmations - I will rebuild
  • Likely Tale Daily Affirmations - I rise
  • Likely Tale Daily Affirmations - I am happy
  • Likely Tale Daily Affirmations - I will recover
  • Likely Tale Daily Affirmations - I take no shit
  • Likely Tale Daily Affirmations - I am heard
  • Likely Tale Daily Affirmations - I am at peace
  • Likely Tale Daily Affirmations - I am what I am
  • Likely Tale Daily Affirmations - I am bigger than my mistakes
  • Likely Tale Daily Affirmations - I will
  • Likely Tale Daily Affirmations - I am kind
  • Likely Tale Daily Affirmations - I am open
  • Likely Tale Daily Affirmations - I am full of ideas
  • Likely Tale Daily Affirmations - I have a voice worth hearing
  • Likely Tale Daily Affirmations - I see value in everything
  • Likely Tale Daily Affirmations - I am interesting
  • Likely Tale Daily Affirmations - I am calm
  • Likely Tale Daily Affirmations - I am tough
  • Likely Tale Daily Affirmations - I create opportunity
  • Likely Tale Daily Affirmations - I choose to grow
  • Likely Tale Daily Affirmations - I will rise again
  • Likely Tale Daily Affirmations - I am pacing myself
  • Likely Tale Daily Affirmations - I am free
  • Likely Tale Daily Affirmations - I am comfortable alone

Dealing With Pain – 7 Tools To Get Started

Dealing with pain is hard.

No shit, huh? But with practice, dealing with pain can be more comfortable.

It is invisible. It can be suffocating. It can be isolating. It can be a source of shame. It can be embarrassing. It can be a nightmare.

It is so often all of those things.

It is rarely enlightening, encouraging, empowering.

But, it can be.

Talking about pain is harder.

You are hardwired for struggle. You don’t have to suffer alone.

Brené Brown

I hate talking about my pain; it terrifies me. It is intensely vulnerable, as I am prideful of my walls and strong appearance. Perhaps counter-intuitively, I prefer that people not be aware of the pain that I endure. Know me long enough though, and you’ll know that I wake up in pain. From the moment my eyes open to the time they close (and often through the night) my body aches. Pain is not something that comes to play once in a while when I have pushed myself too far; it follows me wherever I go.

It is preferable to suffer in silence than to be perceived as a “complainer” or whiny. Or worst of all – vulnerable. Despite all of my best-convoluted attempts to remain silent, there is always a point where it must come up. This point is still one of contention for my inner demons.

You see, those who suffer from chronic pain often hope to suffer invisibly; it is either a battle of total denial or complete forfeit. There is a stigma, much like mental illness. Except, chronic pain and mental illness almost always go hand in hand. Both are mostly invisible to those around us. Some start with emotional distress that evolves into physical pain, while for others the beginning was physical.

The end point is the same though. Because physical and emotional aches are so invisible, people forget or just cannot understand. The impact on our minds can be profound, and science is still working to understand. We who must cope with this are often labelled bitchy, grumpy, impatient, among other things. It may be all we can do to get through the moment, to grit our teeth and eek out terse answers as our bodies scream at us.

Lessons learned, oft forgotten.

I have dealt with my conditions for over a decade now, and there have been many lessons learned along the way. Sometimes I forget them, only to be overjoyed when the learnings are remembered. Early in my Fibromyalgia diagnosis, I was fortunate enough to have had access to a pain therapist – and the tools that she taught me then, are the base of what I still use to this day. A lot has happened since the time that I was nearly on disability, and completely out of hope – more on that journey another day.

But here’s the reason that I cannot stay silent anymore. I can’t recommend watching this enough. I can’t recommend it to enough people. Brené is seriously on her stuff. She’s the right mixture of funny, profound and data-based. And she is profoundly correct.
Every time I watch it, I find my self at least holding back a tear, but always nodding a bit along.

“You are hard-wired for struggle”

-Brené Brown

So this is as much a guidepost and reminder for me, as it is an introduction for you.

Tools for coping with pain that you can start today.

Even my cat gets it.

Individual mileage will vary, based on commitment and personal starting point. Humour your guru. Treat this as an introduction, and feel welcome to you can throw your hands up in the air now and turn away at this “non-sensical bullshit” as I did. Until it got to the point, I thought I had no choice but to try. It’s ok; you can get pissed, I’ll be here when you come around. (I understand that sometimes we need time to process, and decide to make things our idea)


What this means according to Psychology Today:

Mindfulness is a state of active, open attention on the present. When you’re mindful, you carefully observe your thoughts and feelings without judging them good or bad. Instead of letting your life pass you by, mindfulness means living in the moment and awakening to your current experience, rather than dwelling on the past or anticipating the future.

What this means in reality:

Pay attention. To your thoughts, to the world around you.  Stop shutting everything out. It takes a lot of practice. Start where you are, and work with what you have for now. Meditation is one tool that many have used to help get started with mindfulness practice. Others go straight to number 3 on this list, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. I argue this is nearly the same thing, just with different approaches. For now, accept that it won’t come quickly. It is imperative because you can’t selectively remove emotion.

Start here:

Research different ways to add mindful to your day. Mindful.org has an excellent primer article to get you started. Or try checking out the Headspace or Calm apps! – I prefer Calm, personally, Tamera’s voice is really soothing to me.

2. Journaling.

What this means:

Write out your experience. Set aside the time to write (ideally by hand) what is happening in your life, or how you are feeling. Do it in the morning. Or the evening. Or throughout the day. Or just doodle on a page. There are thousands of different approaches here.

What this means in reality:

Journaling itself is a mindfulness practice. You can’t let go of what you are choosing to hold in – you goof. The act of emptying out your experiences, anxieties, and thoughts onto a page inherently gives you the opportunity to let them go. I like to empty my mind with morning pages, a practice that originated (at least in name) with Julia Cameron. The core principle is just to let things flow out. Usually, I start with a timer and just allow every good, bad and awful thought flow out. Then, I turn the page and begin setting intentions. The five-minute journal setup is a great way to do this. Shift to naming things you are grateful for, things that are in your power that would make the day excellent, and an affirmation on which to focus.

Start here:

Lifehacker has a decent primer for you on the benefits and how to get started

3. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy.

What this means:

It’s mostly about recognizing the patterns of your thought and understanding how thought connects to how you feel. It is also the most widely used evidence-based practice for improving mental health. In all the things that I have practiced over the years, this is by far the most useful and is essentially the core of why all the other options on this list work.

What this means in reality:

If as a chronic pain sufferer, therapy isn’t on your radar – it should be. If you are not yet experiencing depression, the odds are strong that you will be, but,  this does not mean that you have to. For those of who hate the fluffy talk of today’s self-help, it is the antidote, being firmly rooted in evidence. Be aware, that it will lead you to things that you had previously thought impossible or useless. (possibly even all of the points on this list)

Start here:

List out (hopefully in the journal you are now considering starting) times when you resist experience pain. Right now, picture yourself putting up a stop sign in those moments. Do this as vividly as you can.  Get to know your stop sign. For me, it’s the exact one I see on the streets.  That bright red octagon with its firm STOP word. Spend a few weeks trying to recognize the moments when you need the stop sign, and then start using the stop sign. It’s all about identifying the patterns that are on autopilot.

4. Yoga. (Or a hot bath)

What this means:

Yoga is a practice of stretching and breathing – think active meditation. Using non-judgment and a settling-in factor, it helps bring a calmness to the sensation of pain. A morning yoga sequence has decreased my pain from back injury to a point where I feel entirely functional.

What this means in reality:

Stretch. Breathe. Stop fucking fighting the illness. Don’t tense up against it, open your mind and breathe into it. It is not trying to convince yourself it isn’t there, but becoming present with it. Accepting it, and gently moving through it.

Start here:

Adrienne is fantastic, human, and not obnoxiously serene. Here’s her Day 1 of a30-day challenge.  Bonus points if you do the challenge. Bonus points still, if you just do day one every day – it doesn’t take much for it to be profoundly helpful.

5. Diet and Exercise.

No need for the three points. Stop eating shit. (that chocolate bar isn’t stopping the pain.) Pay attention to what you are putting in your body. (those chips didn’t make you feel better, did they?) And even though it seems impossible – MOVE. Move whatever little bit you can muster. Staying in bed all day is not going to help, it’s going to make it worse. Pick a battle for the day and push that limit. It doesn’t have to be a marathon; it can just be a few laps of the house spaced out over the day. But – Get. Up. And. Move.

6. Talking it out.

Ditto here – sometimes just talking to someone, anyone can make a huge difference. Stop isolating yourself – it is making you more miserable.

sad dog takes a day for himself wrapped in a blanket
Turn that frown upside down.

7. Forgive yourself.

You aren’t perfect. And neither is any other person on this doomed little planet of ours. Our pale blue dot of imperfection. Stop trying to tell yourself you aren’t enough, that it isn’t ok to be the way that you are. It’s more than okay. And you know what? Sometimes it is acceptable to need to take a day wrapped up in a blanket – as long as you are steeling yourself to push forward the next day, and setting up your frame of mind for success. 😉

These are the primary tools I use to help deal with pain, though there are much more on the list. I plan to cover these in more detail, and more of options in a future post.

What tools do you use to help get you through the day?

This Is Your Brain On Pain

Pain is a simple word. But the experience in our brains is not.

As my legs were dangling off an exam table in a small, uncomfortable blue room; it occurred to me that the pure experience of pain – really is anything but simple.  I’ve been seeing some specialists and a physiotherapist lately, for a hyper-specific pain I’ve been experiencing. It’s been fun looking for the patterns across their disciplines in how they approach questioning me and looking for solutions.  They’ve had a few responses to me that I’ve found very intriguing.

On each of their walls is that chart of happy-to-despondent faces, which you are supposed to use to rate your pain.  The prompt always resembles something like, one being barely noticeable, ten being the worst pain you’ve ever experienced.

While staring at the chart trying to figure out what number to assign to a pain that is strong enough that I can’t ignore it at all, but isn’t quite strong enough to prevent me from doing this. The smiley faces got me thinking; what if the worst pain I’ve ever experienced is throwing off the scale here? If the worst pain you’ve experienced is a serious stubbed toe, and I’ve recovered from laparoscopic surgery with only Tylenol – does ten genuinely mean the same thing to each of us?

So then, Doctor, why didn’t you ask me what ten means to me? I say these things are all relative, right? Tellingly, the only real limitation is your imagination and scope of experience. Or does that part not really matter as you are diagnosing and treating?

It might not be my business to worry or wonder – but wonder I did all the same.

Pain chart with smiley faces
This silly, but moderately effective pain chart. 

I’d argue something like this can feel way more accurate some days. We do have to work with the tools we have and all, but given the spectrum of interpretation – it makes my mind race while I swing my feet back on forth on those exam tables.

Choosing to give my particular point of reference on the meaning of 10 at least quiets my mind.  The jury is still out on whether it is helping the doctors assessments, but hell, I’m there to feel better right?

This pain scale gives me a chuckle.

It seems so much more descriptive. Not to mention accurate some days. But the wild difference between the two charts, and our ability to understand each other relative to them seems important, no?

chainsawsuit.com pain scale
“The spectrum of your being.” – Credit to chainsawsuit.com

It takes practice to communicate the pain effectively.

So let’s assume for a moment, the starting point where effectively no one interprets the same stimulus the same way. Given this assumption, empathy is required for the complex challenge researchers must face. Getting a person to describe their pain experience becomes more like interpreting a poem.  The whole field of study is very complicated. It seems only in the last few years the advancements have been made to take us from, “it’s all in your head” to, “you can impact your recovery with your mind.”

Twelve years ago, I was diagnosed with Fibromyalgia. Strangely – I feel as though I deserve a certificate, some sheet of paper that acknowledges the battle that it was even to get that diagnosis.  It was an uphill battle getting that confirmation. For a while, the doctors were treating me as a crazy person. It took me not backing down and pressing for solutions to see the one specialist that was familiar enough to recognize the problems I was having as real – in 5 minutes flat.

In the years since I’ve watched doctors begin to speak not only about my condition differently, but chronic pain in general. Perhaps as we wade through an epidemic of opioid addiction we are coming to realize that a complex problem involves more thoughtful treatment.

Perhaps therein lies a clue to why finding suitable treatment can be next to impossible for some. It can be a real race of hurdles, competing against the doctor’s education levels on chronic pain, your ability to communicate correctly the experience you are having, the resources available in your system, and even here in Canada – your medical coverage.

Many times, the perfect storm of a lack of understanding on the doctors’ part of effective therapies, and more importantly, the lack of willingness on the patients part to put some work in, lead us down the path of over-prescribed painkillers. I’ve seen many doctors whose first impulse is to throw a pill at it.  For many years now, it’s not been a solution that I’ve been willing to accept – often to their surprise.

We have to be willing to put in the work.

From my fibromyalgia to the ruptured disk in my back, to the chronic acute pelvic pain I’ve had for nearly two years – not one of these conditions has been helped by a pill. Without fail, across the board, I’ve had to put in a consistent and concentrated effort to get the symptoms under control. I’ve had to learn and re-learn that showing up for myself consistently is the best course of action. Somewhere at the crossroads of mindful acceptance, patience and determination I’ve been able to improve the situation.

When I’ve allowed myself to lay down and forfeit – to curl up in a ball of self-pity and how challenging and unfair it all is, it has, without fail, made my pain worse.

The only real option here is to stay present and lean in. Shit, if you are going to be in neverending pain make the best of it. Get curious, explore it, examine it, and breathe into it. My physiotherapist was telling me, every three to fours days those pathways in your brain that send the pain signals start to regenerate. This is not to say that it only takes three to four days to silence the highway and re-route all traffic; it is saying that it only takes that amount of time to see progress. With a slow and deliberate effort, we can become the traffic cops, and route those signals to quieter options.

Precious little goes as far as the willingness to observe your mind and body.  The curiosity to explore, and the steadiness to assure yourself that, even though you are in pain – you are not in danger is really the best cure.

But even at the simplest level – isn’t it a fascinating example of how perception really is our reality?

If you are interested in digging into how our brain interprets pain, here are two fascinating videos.

Lorimer Moseley is a very engaging speaker who breaks down those communication highways in the brain in a way we can easily understand (and laugh while learning).

He’s dedicated to helping those with chronic pain understand how the brain deals with pain. The things that happen in his research are fascinating.  The nuances of perception change our realities and knowing this is the first tiny step in being able to change it. The first seeds of thought that can lead to feeling empowered to change.

It’s research and understanding like this that my physiotherapist was referencing in telling me that with time and attention, we can reshape the highways in the brain to quiet those pain signals.

Pleasure and pain share a lot of the same neurology

Elliot Krane explores some instances where the wiring goes incredibly wrong.

Interesting on many levels, another great breakdown of where the brain doesn’t always get it right. He speaks of moving beyond symptom modifying drugs and using complementary therapies to help leverage the plasticity of our brains to again re-route our pain. Another angle of understanding that can shine a light on the fact that chronic pain doesn’t have to be permanent.

We think of pain as a symptom, but there are cases where the nervous system develops feedback loops and pain becomes a terrifying disease in itself.

We are teaching our minds at the same time we are learning. 

So why not teach them what we need them to know?

What would you like to teach your mind? Let me know!